Clicking on banner ads keeps JWR alive
Jewish World Review August 8, 2002 / 30 Menachem-Av 5762

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
JWR's Pundits
World Editorial
Cartoon Showcase

Mallard Fillmore

Michael Barone
Mona Charen
Linda Chavez
Ann Coulter
Greg Crosby
Larry Elder
Don Feder
Suzanne Fields
Paul Greenberg
Bob Greene
Betsy Hart
Nat Hentoff
David Horowitz
Marianne Jennings
Michael Kelly
Mort Kondracke
Ch. Krauthammer
Lawrence Kudlow
Dr. Laura
John Leo
David Limbaugh
Michelle Malkin
Chris Matthews
Michael Medved
Kathleen Parker
Wes Pruden
Sam Schulman
Amity Shlaes
Tony Snow
Thomas Sowell
Cal Thomas
Jonathan S. Tobin
Ben Wattenberg
George Will
Bruce Williams
Walter Williams
Mort Zuckerman

Consumer Reports

Letter from Riyadh: Moderate Muslims must reassert control over Islam

The writer, who lost his nephew on Sept. 11, is traveling to three Arab countries in an effort to make sense of the tragedy and to find answers to unanswered questions. Below is his second dispatch. | RIYADH, Saudi Arabia Islam, the insistently monotheistic religion that swept out of the Arabian peninsula nearly 14 centuries ago and now counts more than 1 billion followers around the world, is struggling to reclaim its true heart and soul.

Here in Saudi Arabia, Islam's ground zero, even non-Muslim foreign visitors can sense how profoundly most Muslims have been shaken after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America.

But the struggle for Islam's center is internal. In the best sense of a widely misused word, it is a jihad that the rest of us can do little more than watch, although we can encourage a political atmosphere that will help ensure moderate Islam's victory.

The al-Qaida terrorists of Osama bin Laden, pariah of a wealthy and prominent Saudi family, claim to act in Islam's name. They have, thus, put the religion on the defensive, even though their hate, murderous zeal, felonious hearts and misguided utopianism violate long-accepted Islamic teachings in breathtaking ways.

Now Islam's silent majority is trying to understand what went wrong and why so much of the Judeo-Christian world and secular West blame not just Islam but also specifically Arabs, who make up no more than 20 percent of the world's Muslims.

"Saudi Arabia has changed since Sept. 11," says Sultana Rashid, a former teacher in Jeddah. "Saudi Arabia has become very introspective since Sept. 11. You find it all over. There's a lot of debate within the Muslim world between people who supported Osama bin Laden and mainstream Islam."

Rashid, an educated, articulate woman, lives in the most restrictive Islamic country, a title that belonged to Afghanistan before American and other troops evicted the appalling Taliban rulers there. She and other Saudi men and women gathered with 25 editorial writers to talk in the privacy of the beautiful home of a newspaper editor's family.

Saudi Arabia is quite unlike Afghanistan under the Taliban (whom the Saudis once supported), but it was here that bin Laden learned the puritanical Wahhabi version of Islam. He didn't get serious about his religion, however, until late in his adolescence, when a brother took him on a pilgrimage to Mecca, Islam's holiest site, where the Prophet Muhammad was born about 570 A.D.

With the ferocious zeal of a new unsophisticated convert, bin Laden quickly found he could "play the religion card," as one Saudi intellectual put it, and use deformed religion for political and personal ends.

Bin Laden's violent abuse of religion angers the Saudi religious establishment.

"I do not believe that Osama bin Laden represents Saudis or Muslims," says the country's minister of Islamic Affairs, Shaikh Saleh bin Abdul Aziz Al Ashaikh.

He oversees the promotion of Wahhabism, which advocates returning to the original teachings of Islam and stresses the need for an Islamic state based only on Islamic law. This approach to Islam is named after 18th century Saudi reformer Mohammed ibn Wahhab, ally of an ancestor of Saudi Arabia's first king, Abdul Aziz. The king promoted Wahhab's strict formulation of the faith when he welded the country together in 1932.

Other Islamic leaders issue similar denunciations of extremism.

"We are against aggression and using force in this way against innocent people who did not do anything at all," says the grand imam of Egypt, Mouhamed Said Tantawy, known informally as pope of Islam, a faith with no formal hierarchy of clergy.

"The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York - we deeply regret them," says the mufti (the top authority on Islamic law) of Uzbekistan, Abdourashid Bahronov. "We have to understand one thing: The holy religion of Islam is a religion of peace."

How and why, then, did people like bin Laden corrupt Islam and convince followers to kill themselves and others in the faith's name?

"This is what amazes me," answers Mohammed Ahmed Rasheed, Saudi education minister. He says bin Laden's twisting of Islam is similar to Jim Jones' distorting Christianity, which led hundreds of people to kill themselves in Guyana in 1978.

Indeed, discussions here about bin Laden and extremism almost inevitably result in mention not just of Jones but also of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and the Ku Klux Klan's theological lunacy.

Saudis even raise American serial killer John Wayne Gacy and celebrity murderer Charles Manson to point out the obvious truth that Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah - one of 40-some sons of Saudi Arabia's founding king - spoke to our group of journalists at his palace: "Abnormal people are scattered all around the world."

The words of the Saudi minister of information, Foad al Farsy, are echoed in many places here: "Currently we see Osama bin Laden as a renegade and terrorist." Terrorists, he says, "are brainwashed. They do not represent Islam. Why they are corrupted, this is a question we are asking. We don't know why."

There is, in fact, no single, easy explanation for the corruption of Islam by extremists. But there are clues. Understanding them is important for the Islamic world and the West, which needs a better grasp of Islam so people know the enemy is not the religion itself but, rather, toxic militants who claim to operate in its name.

Nearly all Saudis would deny it, but the rigidity of Wahhabism may provide soil in which extremism grows. If, after all, one becomes accustomed to seeing only a narrow view of how things should go in the world - a view one believes God approves or even mandates - it's not a far leap to greater religious stridency.

This is especially true when political grievances provide excuses for exploiting religion's power and appeal. And in the Middle East, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict gets dragged into the center of nearly every issue .

There's an almost universal Arab belief that the United States has adopted an unjust, pro-Israel position. To justify terrorism, bin Laden and other extremists have used this dispute along with a deep hatred of governments in Islamic countries that they feel have abandoned the faith.

"If you don't tie this (terrorism) to what is happening in Israel, you will never understand this," says Reema al-Faisal, granddaughter of the late Saudi King Faisal, who was assassinated by a nephew in 1975.

But bin Laden cares little about the Palestinians. Instead, he uses them.

Indeed, what cemented bin Laden's move to extremism was the war Afghan rebels fought against Soviet invaders in the 1980s. Many fighters who went to Afghanistan to protect - as they saw it - their Islamic brothers came from Saudi Arabia and became part of bin Laden's sphere of influence. The war was seen as a great cause - not only in Saudi Arabia but also in the United States, which supported those fighting for and with bin Laden against the Soviets. So it was no surprise that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis.

Many Saudis and other Arabs initially disbelieved that 15 figure. But as Saudi Information Minister al Farsy now says, "The average people are beginning to realize that these people were Saudis."

The Saudi connection to Sept. 11 is another reason it's important to draw distinctions between and among Islamic countries. Just as California is not Iowa, which is not Vermont, so Saudi Arabia is not Egypt, which is not Uzbekistan.

Despite broad agreement on theology, Islam is divided in other ways. And a country's ancient cultural traditions can produce an Islamic life that looks quite unlike Islamic life elsewhere. In Saudi Arabia, women in public are veiled. In Uzbekistan, some wear short skirts on the streets.

Just as Christianity and Judaism have connections to zealots who misuse those religions, so also does Islam have extremists growing in its shade. For in the Qur'an, too, one can find verses that seem to authorize the use of force to spread the faith. There is at least some dialogue among Islamic thinkers over which Qur'anic verses have precedence over others and, thus, which admonitions abrogate earlier ones.

Similarly, what's called the "Hadith," collected sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, contains exhortations and advice - and parts of it may be more important than other parts.

Zealots, thus, sometimes pick and choose their scriptural justifications. It's possible - as bin Laden has demonstrated - to misuse both the Qur'an and the Hadith to create a violent version of what is claimed to be Islam. This version countenances what bin Laden called for in his 1998 Fatwa (or religious ruling), "Kill Americans Everywhere."

This approach attracts radical followers even though, as Egypt's top Muslim leader, Grand Imam Tantawy, told us when we met with him at Cairo's al-Azhar, the world's oldest university, "G-d has created us in order to cooperate together." And this: "Islam calls for spreading peace among all human beings."

Another aspect of Islam must be considered when trying to conceive of young men killing themselves by flying planes into office buildings or by strapping bombs to their waists.

In Islam, one must earn heaven. The religion teaches that G-d keeps careful track of the good and the evil people do. On judgment day, if your unforgiven sins outweigh the good you did, you are assigned to hell. This idea about an afterlife encourages people to act in ways that will get them a place in paradise.

In most cases, that means living a good, peaceful, prayerful, generous life. But one way to achieve heaven is to die fighting in Allah's cause. Thus this struggle - called jihad (which does not have to involve violence) - is done not merely to spread the faith or for political reasons but for personal salvation. And history shows what a powerful motivator that can be.

Islam envisions no church-state separation. As Middle Eastern scholar Bernard Lewis has written, in Christianity this separation occurred as a result of the 16th century Reformation, which created a need to remove religion from the coercive power of the state.

But because Muslims believe Islam is an answer to all of life, no church-state separation is needed, at least in theory. Several Islamic countries, however, such as Turkey, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, have secular governments.

Some Muslims have looked at church-state separation in the West and seen the growth of cultural decadence and two shocking world wars "in which," as Lewis writes, "Western civilization tore itself apart." This helped to create a hostility toward Western ways, which has given extremists one more arrow in their quiver. All the while, political leaders in many Arab countries have either ignored or, worse, supported the radicals in a bid to keep power.

Fareed Zakaria, foreign editor of Newsweek, wrote recently, " ... as the moderate majority looks the other way, Islam is being taken over by a small poisonous element, people who advocate cruel attitudes toward women, education, the economy and modern life in general."

That overstates the case, but clearly moderate Muslims must reassert control over the way Islam is practiced.

In the end, there's no exhaustive explanation for how and why Islamic extremism has grown. The dynamics are complex. Simple answers - such as Huntington's "clash of civilizations" - hide more than they reveal.

"Cultures and civilizations for wise people are not in conflict at all," says Imam Tantawy. And though it seems a naively optimistic view of things, he is mining the right vein when he adds: "If justice spreads amid all people, there will be peace."

Spreading justice requires settling the Palestinian-Israeli conflict fairly, eradicating illiteracy, fighting poverty and protecting human rights and civil liberties.

As Islam seeks to understand how some of its followers have gone so far astray, achieving those goals can help prevent it from happening again.

Enjoy this writer's work? Why not sign-up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.

JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' latest book is "A Gift of Meaning." To order it, please click on title. To comment on his column, please click here.

07/31/02: Journey of discovery starts at Ground Zero
06/07/02: Life rebukes death's power
05/31/02: Reasonable doubts about executions
05/10/02: Business savvy for graduates
05/02/02: Exporting our exclusivity
04/25/02: Life's stories carry messages about values
04/19/02: Our life force's search for fellow life forces
03/27/02: Can corporations behave ethically?
03/19/02: Space Family Robinsons
02/21/02: Lock, stocks and bonds
02/14/02: In space, the dark matters
02/07/02: Train doctors to have caring hands and hearts
01/31/02: A different feel to my life and to my country?
01/24/02: How green is my universe?
01/17/02: The end is near, eventually
01/08/02: Important lessons arrive out of the past
12/19/01: Lost in the cloning debate
12/10/01: It's all in the name: Unraveling the mystery of Osama's whereabouts
11/19/01: Flying with damaged trust
11/02/01: Recent, recognized research is a hard nut to crack
10/31/01: Many paradoxes in life
10/25/01: Newly found planets show the cosmos is still strange
10/19/01: Just getting caught up
10/17/01: It was a time for tea and sympathy
10/08/01: What makes an authentic patriot?
10/04/01: It's OK to twist and shout
09/17/01: One precious life among many
09/13/01: Remember who we are
09/11/01: Sometimes all children need is shelter from the storm
09/05/01: Couldn't run or throw, but a hero just the same
08/28/01: Lesson for the scientific faithful: Some theories come with strings attached
08/27/01: When waste in space is a waste of space
08/21/01: In complex world, we lack tools to carve out understanding
08/09/01: Visited while asleep by gang of magical mischief makers
08/03/01: Recognizing the limits of one's capacity
07/27/01: We are more than the sum of our work days
07/12/01: Some stars, like some people, never shine
07/11/01: Our deeply embedded need for order
07/03/01: Not-so-famous tour explores not-so-rich neighborhoods
06/28/01: Driven to tell the truth about golf and government
06/25/01: When poetry becomes destructive
06/21/01: We interrupt this broadcast to bring you a word from deep space
06/14/01: Theory of revolution explains why some things get lost
06/11/01: Shamanic gewgaws
06/06/01: Charity begins at homes with lemonade stands
05/30/01: When are wars worth dying in?
05/23/01: Cruising along that bumpy highway
05/09/01: If you're in the write mood, wish the U.S. happy birthday
05/07/01: Killing McVeigh will wound us all
05/01/01: Dubya reinforcing negative GOP stereotypes?


Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2002. All rights reserved